Paintings or Photos? How to Create Realistic Landscapes with Acrylic P – Marianne Vander Dussen

Paintings or Photos? How to Create Realistic Landscapes with Acrylic Paint on Paper

They look like photos!

This is often what I hear when people flip through my landscape acrylic painting sketchbook, but that's usually because they're not looking too closely. If you were to take a careful look, the paintings have a loose, impressionist quality, focused on capturing the spirit of the landscape through colour and form. They're not so worried about the details, and instead hone in on a general impression of place.

This is why I love sketchbooks; not only do they give me the opportunity to practice different techniques and strategies, but they force me into paring back detail and concentrate on what's really important. 

After all, how many hours have we as artists wasted fussing over details that, in the end, didn't even matter? 

In this blog post (and YouTube tutorial) I'll be walking you through how to create two acrylic paintings that look like photos using only four colours. The reference photos are available here as a free download, and if you're a newsletter subscriber you'll have received them already, so check your inboxes! 

Step One: Mix tones with your limited palette to create a moody atmosphere

I like to use a limited palette when I'm painting, and for these pieces I used only four colours: burnt umber, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow light and titanium white. Burnt umber became my de facto red, due to its reddish orange undertones, so whenever I had something with a purple-ish tinge, I used burnt umber.

My favourite recipe for tones is burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and titanium white. Mix the three together, and depending on the ratios, you'll wind up with cool or warm greys. From here, you can build a soft and muted palette, introducing the yellow to create golds and greens.

Step Two: Slowly darken the value spectrum from back to front

The treeline closest to the sky is almost the same value, and just ever so slightly darker. As you move closer and closer towards the observer, the values darken and contrast increases.

The same happens with the temperature of the landscapes, there is a general rule that the farther away something is, the cooler in hue it becomes, since the wavelength of blue light is able to travel greater distances. In the case of this misty marsh, the piece slowly warms from a blueish-greenish-grey to a warm, toasty brown. Working with a limited palette just means shifting the balance, and adding more burnt umber and less ultramarine blue.

Step three: Use two brushes to do a blend in the water, not one brush dipping into two colours

This is the most economical way to blend, leaving each brush saturated with its own colour and switching between the brushes. You have to move quickly, since the paint is quickly absorbed by the paper, but using two brushes makes it significantly easier. 

Multiple layers may make the blend easier and softer, so if you don't succeed on the first attempt, it will make the second much easier.

Step four: Add in details, but keep your brushwork soft until you're right in the foreground

Even though you might be able to see every individual blade of grass in the photo, paintings are much softer and gentler. Lean into this and don't try to copy the photo directly, instead keeping your brushwork loose. You can get sharp once you're nice and close to the viewer, but avoid the temptation to get too precise in the background.

Step five: remember, it's just a sketch

This is where you get to make mistakes, experiment with colour, and try new things. It's always a lovely feeling when you walk away with a stellar painting, but the failed ones are not indicative of your artistic potential; if anything, they mean you've pushed yourself, and that's wonderful. 

Do you draw or paint in a sketchbook? How has it impacted your artistic experience? Let me know in the comments below! 

1 comment

  • Jo

    I am about to start a sketch book with a pencil sketch and a noten version on one side and a painted version on the other side.
    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    So cool!!!

    Marianne Vander Dussen, MEd, OCT Artist and Educator

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